According the first study into Australia's medical oncology workforce, cancer patients are going without treatment or receiving suboptimal treatments because of shortage of medical oncologists that is likely to get worse.
In order to meet the increased demand for cancer treatments that is partially caused by patients surviving and being treated - for longer, Australia may need to increase its medical oncologists by at least 38 per cent, or 90 doctors.
The study has found that less than half of all patients who should be receiving chemotherapy are getting it, and the shortfall is already affecting the quality of care, these patients receive.
Currently, while 51 per cent of cancer patients are eligible for chemotherapy, but only 19 per cent are receiving it.
If the situation continues, Australia is not going to be able to provide the quality of cancer care that people expect said Bogda Koczwara, a South Australian oncologist and the study leader.
More funding for oncology training is needed, as by 2014 Australia's medical oncologist shortfall would rise to between 126 to 198 doctors, she said. Across the states, NSW has the second biggest shortfall, primarily due to large population especially in regional and rural areas, she added.
Ian Olver, chief executive officer of the Cancer Council Australia, said the shortfall is so great that it is not going to be possible to make up the difference using oncologists alone.
He said, We are going to have to be clever about what we call a workforce of medical oncologists.
We may well have to use nurse practitioners (and other health professionals) for some of the things that medical oncologists do.
For certain cases, methods such as hormonal therapy can be used for patients who did not have chemotherapy, he said.
The chairwoman of advocacy group Cancer Voices NSW, Sally Crossing, said she was very surprise and even more worried by the shortage.
We need to make sure that people with cancer have access to treatment that will help them, and it needs to be treatment that is not too hard to get, she said.
It was clear that there was a big shortfall of doctors in rural and regional areas, although the research indicated the problem was likely to affect metropolitan areas, as well, she said.
Cancer Voices had approached the Medical Oncology Group of Australia, to undertake a study after a number of cancer patients reported having trouble accessing a medical oncologist and the group discovered that there was a dearth of research about the medical oncology workforce, said Ms Crossing.
With all this talk of health reform, we need to get an idea of how many more (health professionals) we need, she said.